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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IV, No. 3
Winter, 1980


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JOHN HOWARD LAWSON'S SOULS: A HARBINGER OF STRANGE INTERLUDE

In his Chrysalis article of 1952 (reprinted in the September 1979 issue of the Newsletter), Frederick C. Packard, Jr. refers to O'Neill's "great innovation" in Strange Interlude--the "courageous adoption ... of the old stage device of the 'aside'," which the playwright "transformed into the central medium of expression for a profound psychological drama." O'Neill scholars may be interested to know that twelve years before, when he was 20-21 years old, John Howard Lawson had experimented with a similar "adoption of an old stage device" as the "central medium of expression" of the self-consciousness of characters. In his as yet unpublished autobiography, Lawson states only the general nature of his experiment: "All the action took place in the minds of the characters." The play, in which this experiment comprises the second act, is Souls: "A Psychic Fantasy" (copyrighted without the subtitle on May 21, 1915, but begun in 1914 under the title Atmosphere). I offer a brief description, which may be of interest for comparison's sake.1

Souls is a "triangle" story. Gordon Milborn, a rich, middle-aged dilettante, expects to marry Mary Morse, his 22-year-old secretary and mistress, who unconsciously loves Roland Rood, a young romantic poet, who--consciously but secretly--reciprocates her affection. Aside from this story, the structure of Souls, a play of dialogue rather than of action, is similar to that of The Iceman Cometh: the above three characters are confronted by a fourth--a superior, master-like man named Robert Howells, a psychologist with a markedly moral bent--who urges them to bare the truth of their souls.

The action of Souls begins in Milborn's library, where Howells probes Milborn's soul, "as a surgeon probes the flesh," and exposes its "dirtiness": "Outwardly you are benevolent, cultured, artistic, wise, but in your soul there's tyranny and hate and damnation." Subsequently, Howells gets Milborn, Mary and Roland to bare the truth of their souls themselves. (Howells does not bare his own soul in the copyrighted Souls, but in its first draft, Atmosphere, he says he lives in a cold, dismal place, a Palace of the Intellect, a brain laboratory.)

In Souls this soul-baring is done almost exclusively by soliloquies, which Lawson calls "Interludes," each with its own setting corresponding to the soul of the soliloquist. These three Interludes, which occur one after the other and comprise Act Two, are similarly titled: "The Interior of Gordon Milborn's Soul," "The Interior of Mary Morse's Soul," and "The Interior of Roland Rood's Soul." Unfortunately, the Interludes are not always consistent to themselves: sometimes when one character soliloquizes, baring his soul, another converses with him or her about something the soliloquist has said. But in their Interludes the characters reveal themselves with considerable frankness, and these soliloquies can easily be called "confessionals."

In "The Interior of Gordon Milborn's Soul," staged in a dim room with black pillars and twisted recesses, Milborn confesses that his life is a damnable mockery. He suspects everyone's motives and dislikes Mary's pretense of innocence--she may have known a lot of men too intimately. But nothing makes much difference to Milborn, who considers love a laughable lie and is marrying Mary because it's the easiest thing to do: if he doesn't, she may make trouble. Another reason he's marrying Mary is to salve his conscience. When he was seventeen "the thing happened"--a sixteen-year-old farmer's daughter had had his baby--and he never paid any attention to either mother or child. Even when both died he had cared very little. But it has preyed on him--not consciously, but buried in his soul--and his current plans are partly an unconscious attempt at making amends.

Roland interrupts this soliloquy and calls Milborn a damnable cur. Milborn, who would thrash Roland if he said that to his conscious self, is in his soul pleased to be called a cur. He wishes he were thoroughly bad, but the curse of his life is that he's neither good nor bad, simply half-and-half. As for Mary, when he wants a thing he usually takes it if he can get it, and it was easy to get Mary, who appealed to him in a sensual way. He is even pleased that Mary is afraid of him, for the fear gives him a delusion of power. He doesn't understand Mary, but he dislikes her. He had also disliked his first wife and had subtly, unconsciously, encouraged her dislike of him. Milborn ultimately admits that he's a trivial man. His soul is empty; he thinks he should be pitied.

"The Interior of Mary Morse's Soul" is staged in a place of grey fear and cloudy uncertainty--grey walls without any decoration, a gate with iron bars wrought in a complicated design. The significance of the setting is soon apparent: Mary confesses that she lives in a house of fear--partly because her father used to get drunk and beat her; and partly because, while she has pretended to love Milborn, she is afraid of him because of his cleverness and his sexual appeal. (When he had kissed her, violently, it gave her a thrill. The thrill was disgusting, but she hadn't ever felt a thrill like it before, and she was frightened. The more frightened she got, the more she let Milborn kiss her, pretending it was love for she'd always been vaguely waiting for love.) Besides, Milborn was rich and she was tired of being poor and was sick of prudence and self-control. So she let herself be carried away, knowing (in her soul) that she would be unhappy with Milborn and that her dislike would become hate. But now it's too late: she admits to being a trivial and frightened woman who is in a hopeless situation.

In the third Interlude, Roland tells Mary that, though he outwardly scorns her, in his soul he loves her. He confesses that he too has had a few bouts with lust--and that, whereas Mary had sinned blindly, he sinned knowingly--but he refuses to admit to helplessness, stating that "love is above right and wrong." Roland and Mary go off together, and Milborn is left alone (with his invalid mother, who dies; and with Howells, who continues probing his soul), obsessed with the idea of the interiors of souls. Milborn considers but rejects suicide.

At the time of writing the melodramatic, talky Souls, John Howard Lawson was a fledgling playwright, working largely alone, who felt compelled to follow the direction of his show biz-oriented agent, Mary Kirkpatrick, who rejected Souls as non-commercial and urged Lawson to stop his experimentation and learn tried and true Broadway techniques. One wonders what might have happened if Lawson too had associated himself with the Provincetown Players, whose members could have been more supportive artistically than Mary Kirkpatrick. Perhaps a rewritten version of Souls: "A Psychic Fantasy" would have been the first American drama to present the "great innovation" of an old stage device. Even as it is, the three Interludes of Souls comprise a rough, even crude, presage of that later, rather more polished theatrical landmark, Strange Interlude.

--Le Roy Robinson

1 Souls remains unpublished and has never been produced. Mr. Robinson has described its contents at greater length in an article in Keiei to Keizai. The editor will share his copy of that article with any reader who requests it.

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